This passage highlights the great strength of Harrold’s book: using language to evoke more than the thing itself. Music pours into ears “like fresh orange juice, sharp and cold and full of vitamins.” Shadowy creatures appear as “scribbled black lines of limbs.” These are the touches of a poet, and they shine.
Still, it can be difficult to shed the older obligations of children’s fantasy, and Harrold’s delicate touches are somewhat overwhelmed by the scope of his plot. The otherworldly song draws Frank into a mystery involving, among other things, dimensional rifts, trolls, shape-shifting monsters, talking cats and a shadowy agency dedicated to protecting the fabric of the universe(s). At times, these fantastical conceits are more confusing than compelling. This is unfortunate, because beneath lies a moving story about an outcast child, Nicholas, who has been tragically separated from his mother. Harrold, the author of several novels and poetry books, was himself an orphan, and he writes about parental loss in a way that moves beyond the hackneyed tropes often found in children’s literature. (His “A Poem for My Mum” is at once delightful and devastating.)
If Harrold’s book approaches a new frontier in children’s fantasy, James Nicol’s debut, “The Apprentice Witch,” does the opposite: It takes readers on a pleasant trip back to a simpler age. Nicol’s magical world is familiar — full of witches and broomsticks and spells and frightened villagers. Arianwyn Gribble is a young witch who has just come into service under the Civil Witchcraft Authority. The setting is something like wartime England, with witches acting as public servants, dispatched to counties around the “Four Kingdoms” to handle infestations of magical pests.
After a disastrous evaluation ceremony, Arianwyn is sent to the far-flung town of Lull — an unglamorous assignment. Arianwyn sets up…